21 hours a week: time to aspire to fun?
In 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the 21st century, we’d be working an average of 15 hours a week. The argument was a pretty simple one. Up to that point, there had been rapid technological shifts. If this continued, then in order for everyone in Britain to get the basic material wealth that they needed, they wouldn’t have to work as many hours to produce it. Surely, people would choose to work less, and play more?
Well, no, we didn’t. While it may well have been the case that this would have been sensible, it was not what was most profitable for those who sell us stuff. And so we were encouraged to work harder to buy more of their stuff. This has made a few people very rich, may of us a bit richer, and has done little to help most people in the world.
Now, 80 years later, the ever excellent New Economics Foundation (NEF) have produced a new report calling for the a shift in our normal working habits to an average working week of 21 hours. I won’t go through all of the arguments here – every paragraph in it deserves discussion. I recommend that you read it.
But one of the arguments NEF make a similar to Keynes’, but with more imperative. They say that we must cut our working week in order to avert dangerous climate change. They also point out that this would cut unemployment, give us more time to care for each other, and give us more time to do things we might think of as more important – like seeing our families. Their arguments that increased consumption beyond a certain point does not deliver increased well-being are well rehearsed. But I do think it also highlights another need.
Neo-liberal consumerism has sold us a very simple answer to a fundamental human question: What next? We have evolved as creatures who struggle to survive. In many parts of the world, and for some in the UK, we are still a species fighting for survival. But in wealthier countries, and for the better off around the world, neo-liberalism has provided a simple answer: once you have shelter, get a bigger house. Once you have transport, get your own car, and then get a bigger one. Once you have all the stuff you need, get more stuff that you don’t need.
We need a more compelling answer to this question – both because this consumerism has failed to make us happy – in fact, it has made us less happy, and because it is threatening the stability of life on earth. As a movement, we are very good at being against things – poverty, climate change, oppression, exploitation, disease, injustice. We are in favour of eliminating these things. But that’s not really an answer to our deep desire to know, what next.
If we look at those things people do enjoy, that aren’t consumption, then there are some obvious answers. Education: who doesn’t think that plesiosairs are awesome?
OK, maybe that’s just me.
But discovery is another fundamental human urge. How many people had their minds captured by Neil Armstrong walking on the moon?
Similarly, the arts provide this. And I don’t just mean Mozart and Dali (though the latter is an excuse to post his awesome and controversial “Christ of St John on the cross”.) I mean pop culture, live gigs, comedy and sport.
But as well as being in favour of entertainment, we need to find things to which we can aspire in our own lives – aims towards which we can work. We can’t all be pop stars, painters, and famous footballers, alas.
In 2005, Andrew Simms from NEF gave a fantastic presentation in the Scottish Parliament on the economics of happiness. He told us that human happiness isn’t dependent on ever increasing material consumption, but it is dependent on the feeling that you are progressing towards your goals. And currently, the goals many people have are about material wealth.
We can’t continue to live to work. It is making most of us miserable, and destroying the planet. While they are important, I am not sure that falling in love and raising a happy family are enough for everyone. We do have the collective desire to solve our society’s problems – poverty, climate change, oppression, illiteracy, and illness. But I am not sure any of these are quite as compelling an answer to the “what next” question of human aspiration as the simple response, ‘more’. If NEF are to persuade us to work fewer hours, then we also have to answer the questions they raised back in 2005 – we must be more vocal in our support for those aspects of our aspirations which will make us happy, for that reason alone. We shouldn’t be ashamed to re-frame and re-claim asperation, and to make fun matter.
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I think this is a cause worth campaigning for. What does the rest of the EU say about this matter? I believe that 21hours
could be the basic working week as opposed to the massive 40hours (or a lot more). It is too much and cannot be sustained
for a lifetime. People are not machines.
However, I think this really depends upon the sector. In manufacturing (blue collar jobs) 21 hours a week would not
sustain the company or the worker. As it is, people all over the world in office (or white collar jobs) enjoy greater
flexibility in work and the labour process – though some would say that office work brings its own sort of
In this case there has to be benefits (should such a decrease in the hours of a working week occur) for people in
Ceridian – The Future of Work
The moral basis for 21hours a week is based on the idea (I believe) that if living standards are improved (for example –
time for leisure, health, good food, family etc.) that people will get by with less money. There may be some middle way
between the existing system and an imposed 21 hour working week. Germany would entertain this idea at least as their
culture is very family orientated (for instance – they do not open their shops on a Sunday so people who work in the
retail sector do not have to work on this day). Here in Britain, on the other hand, this would never wash. We work the
most hours in Europe.
Really nice piece of writing Adam. I write having just finished hour 50 of about 75 this week. Which is as much fun as it sounds.
Yes, this is one really important thing they discuss in the report – in fact, 21 hours is roughly the average time spent in paid work for the working age population of the UK, and also about the same as the amount of time spent in unpaid work in the week – the main difference is that women do both caring and paid work. Men therefore, work less, on average. A redistribution of working hours, if done right would be a good way to make this fairer.
A 21 hour week would also make it easier for parents to work and reduce some of the career stigma which can be attached to people who choose to work part time to concentrate on childcare.